BY CHERYL ANGELINA KOEHLER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT PETERSON
Pity the poor bottle of pop in Berkeley. Much maligned for its fake flavors and high-fructose corn syrup, it now drags around an ignoble tax of shame.
But that’s another story. We’re here to report on a local triumph in bringing dignity back to the humble soda.
Few Berkeleyites were thinking about a soda tax in 2010 when King Middle School students Sebastian and Alejandro Caamaño were watching their parents having fun in the kitchen making bubbly water with a tabletop soda siphon. Their dad Christopher is an architect/builder and also a chef, so when the brothers asked if a kid could make soft drinks with that contraption, he had more than a cursory reply.
Christopher Caamaño has childhood memories of his grandparents making sarsaparilla (often called sassparilla) at their home in Scottsdale, Arizona. They understood the origins of soda syrups as preparations made by village pharmacists for medicinal purposes, and Christopher recalls that they used authentic ingredients from the Native American and Old World pharmacopoeias, such as roots of sarsaparilla and licorice, birch sap, wild cherry, and whole spices. The sweetener would have been cane sugar. But in mid-20th century America, they might have had difficulty with obtaining whole sassafras root, given that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had banned safrole (a phenylpropene component of sassafras) in the early 1960s for its supposedly carcinogenic properties. That move by the FDA was one of many that helped flip the giant soda manufacturers once and for all toward ersatz flavors.
Throughout the ensuing decades, as America embraced industrial foods, people simply forgot that root beer was once made of sassafras and sarsaparilla roots, or that ginger ale was once made of ginger root. But that tide has slowly turned, and by 2010, the prospect of assembling real ingredients for old-style sodas was not beyond the ken of the Caamaño kids, who were regularly trotting by Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard during their athletic activities. There was no reason not to try their hands at creating a root beer worthy of a savvy North Berkeley foodie’s scrutiny.
So Sebastian and Alejandro—plus their dad, who obviously couldn’t resist—set out to research the nature and availability of a vast array of extracts, essential oils, spices, juices, and natural sweeteners as they sought to reinvent root beer, ginger ale, and wild black cherry soda like the village pharmacists used to make. The kids set up a soda stand to snag folks heading in and out of their neighborhood plant nursery in Northbrae, Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, fondly known by locals as “the Hort.” The sodas were declared delicious, and the brothers learned—again from dad—that they would need to rent time at a commercial kitchen so the sodas and soda syrups could be sold legally to the public.
Among those who could not resist the charms of the young proto-entrepreneurs in their makeshift pop-up was Chris Hall, manager of the Kensington Farmers’ Market. At the time, he was looking for a drink vendor to fill a gap in his Sunday offerings, and an all-natural and partly organic, cane-sugar-sweetened soda pop made by some local boys more than filled the bill.
Meanwhile, the pizzaiolos at Gioia Pizzeria, around the corner from the Hort on Hopkins Street, took the bold step of loading some Caamaño Bros. High Noon Sarsaparilla syrup into their Coca-Cola soda machine in place of the big C’s regulation root beer. According to Sebastian and Alejandro, a Coke representative discovered the switch but agreed to look the other way when he realized what a PR gaff it could become if he outlawed the local-kid-crafted quaff.
As the renown of the Caamaño Bros. sodas spread, local eateries like Saul’s Deli, Bobby G’s, Picante, Triple Rock, and more upscale establishments, such as Café Rouge, Celadon (in Napa), and the Lark Creek restaurants put it on tap, but if Caamaño Bros. Soda Pop Co. six-packs were going to make it to grocery store coolers, the brothers had to get serious about bottling.
“That’s a sight to see,” says Sebastian, now 18 and a senior at Berkeley High. The elder brother has a sparkle in his eye as he describes the bottling machinery with all its moving parts. He and Alejandro (now 16 and a Berkeley High junior) take a day off from school as needed to drive to the Varni family’s independent Seven-Up bottling plant in Modesto, where they take over a corner of the lab to test the Brix (sugar content) and pH of their syrups before the mixtures head down the bottling line. “He [Tony Varni] is really into helping the little guy,” says Alejandro. “He does this for several small companies.”
The brothers are now developing new flavors: a birch beer with wintergreen oil, a ginger ale with Meyer lemon, and a Concord grape soda—which they especially adore—are currently in the works. But they also take on one of the most difficult jobs in any business: Sebastian and Alejandro serve as the company’s main salesmen, although they hope soon to have employees on that post, especially since college looms. After graduation in June, Sebastian plans for a gap year in Spain working on a farm where he can learn Spanish. Alejandro has another year on Berkeley High’s IB diploma track. But through the whole scheme thus far, the brothers have watched dad Christopher moonlight effectively in the soda business, so there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same. Christopher wants to see his grandchildren take over the business some day.
What do the Caamaño brothers’ schoolmates think of the soda-making venture?
“When we were kids, it was just a little soda stand and nobody thought much of it,” they explain. But Sebastian recounts how on a very recent afternoon, when he was hanging out with friends, he had to step out on soda production duty. As he was excusing himself, one guy just happened at that moment to hold up his bottle of Caamaño Bros. saying, “I love this stuff!” When Sebastian mentioned that mixing the syrups was on his afternoon agenda, the friend exclaimed, “You mean you make Caamaño Brothers sodas?” Apparently it was the first time he had made the connection.